Monday, August 21, 2006

What Are They Thinking?

I need some help making sense of this. Somebody please give me a clue.

Since Northwest Airlines has a large hub at our airport and employs a lot of local people, the goings-on at the company are always big news here. As you may be aware, NWA has filed for bankruptcy, and are working on cutting their costs to become solvent again. There is much talk of whether they will even exist in the future (as there is with any airline that is in financial trouble).

So far NWA has squeezed wage concessions out of almost all of their unions, with those concessions usually dependent on all of the other unions also agreeing to similar cut-backs. The one remaining holdout is the flight attendants union, and they are not going along with any wage or benefit concessions. Two separate agreements have been made between the union and NWA, and in both cases the union members voted to reject the deals. Now NWA is talking about imposing a new contract on the flight attendants, and in response the flight attendants are talking about their plans to strike.

They have come up with a strike plan that they think will cause maximum harm to the airline's ability to do business. They intend to stage random walkouts on various days at various locations to make it so that the airline can't be ready with replacements and random flights will have to be cancelled.

So, what I don't get is how they think this is any way to go about saving what remains of their jobs. If they succeed in putting the final stake through the airline's heart they will have no jobs, and not much in the way of prospects at other airlines. Even just the threat of a strike will probably cause passengers to book on other airlines instead.

I can sympathize that they don't make enough to be giving back any wages, but I don't understand how hurting the company is going to help their case. It seems to me that there are cases where a strike can apply pressure to the right folks and help a union get what it wants, but there are other cases where it just makes the workers' own situation more precarious. This seems to be a case where everyone's future at the airline depends on the company doing well, and scaring away customers doesn't seem like it could possibly help.

I don't know what can help, given that a strike is just about the only tool that a union has to wield, but this just may be a case where waiting out the situation and trying for a better contract when times are better might be a smarter strategy.


wunelle said...

I have mixed feelings here, but I think I lean in the Flight Attendants' direction (as I suppose might be expected from someone employed as an airline laborer).

Having flown passengers for over seven years, I confess I cannot fathom what would cause a person to be a flight attendant. I can see the starry-eyed romance that gets one to apply, but not what would keep one at the job after a year or two. It's a really shitty job, doing boring, repetitive things for passengers who, for their $179, expect royal treatment, and getting paid a near-subsistence wage for all the hassle and training. I didn't even work with the general public (being isolated up in the cockpit), and it was enough for me to actively seek out cargo work. People, en masse, suck.

So I can see where, selfishly, the job just isn't worth doing after the same percentage cuts that other employee groups have sustained. A 40% wage cut, however insulting to the legacy of the job of being an airline pilot, affects the pilots differently than the Flight Attendants (and I'm frankly amazed that the pilots have agreed to their cuts). Hence the mindset: hold out to the end and then find a job at Starbuck's, which would pay as much.

But I get, of course, that this would also drag everybody ELSE out onto the street as well, to include employee groups who have agreed to cuts and would rather keep their jobs with diminished compensation and wait for things to improve. So why not, in this case, just quit?

Well, I can think of a couple reasons. First, any concern for fellow employee groups has evaporated completely; the collapse of this industry has utterly destroyed employee unity. Since 9/11, labor groups have been routinely pitted one against the other to achieve the cuts that management insists are the airline's only salvation. NWA's mechanics (as a prime example) were given the boot by the company and the other employee groups did nothing to assist (to say nothing of the complete deafness to the mechanics' plight shown by union workers at other companies). It's become everyone for themselves.

Second, whether for this reason or not, it is not inconceivable to me that the Flight Attendants are taking the view that they are being steamrolled by an enterprise which is actively malevolent towards its employees, and this is the one way they can apply pressure that cannot be ignored.

So I sure don't cheer an airline's collapse, but I can't help cheering a bit at a group who is doing what a whole lot of other groups needed to do five years ago: draw a line in the sand and stick to it. From their perspective, the alternative may not be worth saving.

Just my two cents'.

Jeffy said...

Yesterday I added another insightful comment to this post, but now it appears to be gone.

Struck by Blogger again!!

I don't recall what I said, but trust me, it was truly brilliant.

wunelle said...

I don't doubt that comment's brilliance, and so I'll just say it straight:

"I stand corrected!"


Jeffy said...

I doubt that I had corrected you - I think that it was another keen observation to add to what we had both already said.